They have won four of the last six Heineken Cup finals and many other titles of international renown. Leinster and Munster can now share a new one by laying claim to the biggest rivalry in any of the three European Leagues, writes Peter Jackson.
As a blood-curdling reminder that there is life after the World Cup, their first meeting of the domestic season in the RaboDirect Pro 12 next week is expected to draw some 45,000 to Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, comfortably more than Wellington managed for the World Cup quarter-finals featuring Ireland-Wales followed by Australia-South Africa 24 hours later.
When it comes to box-office appeal for a League fixture, there is nothing quite like it. True to form, more than 38,000 seats had been sold fully a fortnight before the kick-off on Friday November 4. The hype surrounding the first super-heavyweight contest of the European season sounds as though it could have come straight from Madison Square Garden.
‘Donnybrook promotions presents a clash of champions,’ Leinster’s website proclaimed in the finest tradition of the fight game. ‘In the blue trunks and the white trim – the champions of Europe. In the red trunks with the navy blue trim – the Celtic champions.’
Not for nothing does Leinster coach Joe Schmidt swear that Irish rugby ‘has never been more successful.’ Wales may have been much too good when it came to making the last four of the World Cup but the Welsh can only dream about the level of consistency which Leinster and Munster have reached in Europe.
Between them, the four Welsh regions have mustered one losing European final and that in the first season when the English gave it a miss. To make it worse from a Welsh perspective, three of the four Irish triumphs in Heineken finals have taken place in Cardiff, starting with Munster in 2006 and again two years later.
Not to be outdone, Leinster didn’t just win the same trophy at the same stadium last season. They did so in such unforgettable style, coming from a long way behind to beat Northampton in a classic which will still be talked about in 50 years time.
Twickenham’s traditional double-header on the first Saturday of the English Premiership season may attract a few more but for sheer passion, there is nothing to compare with Munster-Leinster. Their last meeting, in the Grand Final at Thomond Park last May, came the week after Leinster had recaptured their Heineken crown with a thrilling reaffirmation of their status as undisputed champions of Europe.
Munster’s ferocious rebellion left their compatriots in no doubt that their success counted for nothing on the banks of the Shannon. The expected uprising in the south-western corner of the continent they had conquered seven days earlier proved too much, even for Leinster.
Munster’s begrudging respect for the Dubliners’ achievement generated a ferocity of resistance which proved that only one team rules at Thomond Park. As a response to being turfed out of not one European club competition but two, Paul O’Connell and his pack paved the way to an emphatic seizure of the Celtic title in a fashion which made a mockery of their earlier difficulties.
Leinster, eclipsed 3-0 on tries, will remember that they wound up not only soundly beaten but in an undignified heap. Reputations have never counted for anything at Thomond, as the 1978 All Blacks will testify. Never can an opposing team have gone there with a bigger one than Leinster who had removed the champions of France (Clermont Auvergne), the champions of England (Leicester) and the champions of Europe (Toulouse) en route to winning the Heineken. Nobody will do that again in a hurry and live to tell the tale.
What happened in Limerick one week later will be uppermost in their minds next week. Munster will remember it too, as nothing more than justice taking its natural course given that they had finished the regular season 13 points clear of Leinster. Their meetings have truly become the stuff of legend, each occasion pushing the fixture ever higher above the rest.
With their World Cup cast due back in all their glory, Leinster-Munster in the RaboDirect Pro 12 will be bigger than anything in the French Top 14 or the English Premiership. The importance of the outcome will extend far beyond Ireland as the other big guns elsewhere gear up for the start of the European campaign.
Who’s to say that by the end of it, at Twickenham next May, an Irish team won’t have won the final for the fifth time in seven years…?